Oh, what might have been.
On a spring night in Nevada, Rousimar Palhares latched onto the leg of World Series of Fighting welterweight champion Steve Carl, heel hooking his way to victory in 69 seconds to become champion himself.
Few men are able to withstand Palhares' unconventional approach to combat, and Carl was no different.
Palhares, something of an enigma and long embattled for his continuous injuring of opponents in MMA and grappling matches, arrived at the top of the heap in a welterweight division. Unfortunately, it's one where Steve Carl was the champion. It's one no one who isn't a hardcore fan would even see. It's one that's probably well beneath his considerable ability.
You see, the fine line of success for Palhares is one he's blurred repeatedly. His leglocks are nightmare fuel for opponents, either because they're nearly undefendable and will result in a loss without room for second chances, or because if he gets one in place it's highly likely that he'll let go when he's good and ready—not when an official intervenes.
He's left many a victim in his wake, a collection of guys hobbled because they didn't tap fast enough, or because Palhares elected to hold on for a while after they did. It's that attitude that cost him what could have been a real run in the UFC.
The world's biggest promotion was his home for 12 fights between 2008 and 2013, 11 of which took place at middleweight. The stocky Palhares, nicknamed Toquinho for his likeness to a Brazilian tree stump, went 8-4 there in an almost comically kill-or-be-killed run: get a leg, finish the fight in seconds. Don't, and get KO'd almost as quickly.
But it was his last fight—made so by a repeat offense of injuring an opponent seemingly on purpose—that raised eyebrows. Debuting at welterweight, he demolished the criminally underrated Mike Pierce in 31 seconds, snapping on a leglock and easily procuring a tap. And then another. And then another.
After the event, he was released from the UFC for ignoring those taps, a gesture that left Pierce hobbled. Despite some pleading and some contrition that certainly seemed genuine, he accepted his jettison to the nether realm and signed with WSOF.
Still, fans were left to wonder: If he did that to someone as well-respected as Pierce, what could he have done with more time in the UFC? Especially now, with no GSP and a bunch of closely clustered contenders jockeying for position?
It's hard to say but fun to think about. With the division wide open and another year to get the weight cut down, Palhares might have fought one or two times since his last UFC appearance in 2013 and been in the title mix now.
Who wouldn't want to see him against Demian Maia or Jake Shields? Or against Nick Diaz or Robbie Lawler? Or even someone ranked a little lower, like Tarec Saffiedine or Gunnar Nelson?
Not to say he'd beat those guys, but wouldn't it be fun to watch? The frantic race of Palhares trying to lunge on a leg and break it off (maybe literally), while better proper mixed martial artists try to fend off the most abstract attack in the game long enough to impose their will?
There's no telling if it would be competitive, but it would damn sure be entertaining. And, that's just as big a part of MMA as anything else.
Palhares is no martyr. He did some dumb stuff—repeatedly—and he's paying the price with his ban from the biggest promotion in town. He's landed on his feet by becoming a WSOF champion, but it's hard not to wonder what might have been had the most intriguing part of his UFC run not been cut short so quickly.
What might have been, indeed.
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